Ezz-thetics

a column by
Stuart Broomer

Few records by musical giants have the negative reputation of Embraced!, the two-LP documentation of Mary Lou Williams and Cecil Taylor’s 1977 Carnegie Hall concert. Search the internet and you can find one-star consumer reviews that damn or deify Taylor in the most intense terms. I’ve enjoyed it since its 1978 release and recently checked to find out that I still do. It’s one of those things that I played relentlessly at the time of its release, and I was immediately reminded why: it has a ferocious energy that is one with its essential incomprehensibility.

Williams plays something very close to her “history of jazz” recital, a sequence of different stylistic approaches running through spirituals, blues, ragtime, early jazz, swing, and bop. She’s no ordinary piano player or composer. Suffering the chauvinism meted out to women musicians in much of the 20th century, Williams nonetheless carved out an extraordinary career. Born in 1910, she was impressing Jelly Roll Morton in the 1920s, going on to arrange for and later play with Andy Kirk, then writing charts for many of the greatest bands of the swing era, including Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and others. In the 1940s she was a mentor to Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, and by 1977 was still sufficiently open to new things to arrange a concert with her trio with bassist Bob Cranshaw and drummer Roy McCurdy (they only show up briefly on a few standards and soon explode/lapse into incoherence) and special guest Cecil Taylor. Listen to the applause on the record and you would think it was a triumph, even if it sometimes occurs in ways to suggest the audience, or some significant part of it, is glad something’s over. According to her autobiography, Williams provided Taylor with parts that Taylor elected not to follow, and there was apparently some subdued acrimony on stage.

None of this affects what an open listener might hear in the music. When it’s an historical construct, it has the density and energy of a maelstrom, Williams’ passage through a style filled with intensity and perhaps lent a harder, more insistent edge as Taylor plays very much as he might during one of his contemporaneous solo concerts, a percussive onslaught that might suggest the piano has merged with a particle accelerator (I recall a Taylor solo performance in a Toronto theatre in the 1970s, when around the hour-mark a disgruntled voice from the middle of the audience bellowed “Change the mood, Cecil, change the mood!”).

The challenge posed by the Williams/Taylor duo, very likely more pronounced at the time than at present, was to listen to them simultaneously rather than synchronously. If you try the latter, directly relating the two parts, the back-and-forth movement is almost dizzying. Accept what is being offered and it is music of a special kinetic genius, multiple rhythmic and spatial worlds creating new patterns, moving in and out of possible relationships, revisioning jazz and its history, its social context, and its cumulative meanings.

A year later Taylor and Williams were guests at Jimmy Carter’s White House celebration of jazz at which Carter pursued Taylor to congratulate him on his performance and Williams managed to compress her survey of jazz history into eight minutes. She might have genuinely benefitted from Taylor’s help there (John S. Wilson. “Carter Opens Home to Jazz as an Art”, NY Times, June 19,1978, C13).

I was drawn back to Embraced!, and happily so, by the relative symmetry of two recent arrivals, each a two-CD set played by a large European band and otherwise utterly unalike except for that prior connection between Taylor and Williams and that each of the recordings is a significant contribution to the historical record and each is a remarkable act of love for a singular musician.

 

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In 1988, Cecil Taylor recorded Legba Crossing with a German orchestra following a week-long workshop. It’s a work of great energy and often surprising textures, with Taylor directing and Vancouverite Paul Plimley contributing delightfully apt piano playing. Two years later, Taylor returned to Germany, and the reed player Ove Volquartz was able to arrange a similar week-long workshop with many of the same musicians, followed by a performance of the resultant piece, released now as Göttingen (Fundacja Słuchaj FSR10 2021) by the Cecil Taylor Ensemble. Is it as intense as Legba Crossing? Yes, though certainly more diffuse. Is it as demanding? It adds a third percussionist, replaces oboe and flute with trumpet, the relatively reserved Paul Plimley with Taylor himself as pianist and extends the length from 49 minutes to two sets totalling 2 hours, 18 minutes, 33 seconds, including a 10-minute “encore.” Just in terms of duration, almost triple the length, along with the percussive bombast, it’s incredibly demanding. Like Legba Crossing, Göttingen is a transformation of states of mind, an initiation into mysteries, a “crossing” from one realm into another.

It’s also interesting to note, especially in this context, how much it initially resembles a “history” or even pre-history, Set One: Part One beginning with a long segment of bowed roars from the basses, low pitched percussion, and random vocalizations before moving on to a segment with horns that emphasizes trombone and tenor saxophone playing loud and blues-drenched smears. It’s reminiscent to these ears of some of Charles Mingus’ early expressionist works, most notably Pithecanthropus Erectus. It all suggests a kind of primeval ceremony, extending to a long passage in Set One: Part Two in which the blasts of trombonist Heinz-Erich Gödecke, an almost shamanic voice here, rise above the dense underbrush of basses and percussion and the chatter of soprano saxophones.

Set Two, Part One begins in rumbling and an undercurrent of voices, with a few words of Taylor’s brightly enunciated voice suddenly appearing; a passage of piano arises, then moody bass rumblings set against bright treble intrusions until the winds begin to enter over the increasingly churning rhythms, led by Joachim Gies’ keening alto saxophone until the rest of the horns add a further churning undercurrent to the massed rhythm. Like the music of Embraced!, it’s a special experience, though at once more diverse and more unified, played by musicians who have lived it, felt it for a week, and it’s attended by an audience with a clearer idea of what to expect. It’s music in which one might move slightly with the rhythmic current, part of the mind centred now on what I take to be the high-speed, high-register swirl of Ove Volquartz’s soprano saxophone, eventually merging into pounding drums, violin, trumpet, and reed voices rising and the piano churning where the drums once were.

It’s not music where one might expect distance in which to sort it out, to somehow separate one’s experience of hearing it from the music itself. As the music continues to develop, it takes on more layers, some of the individual elements constantly becoming denser. The final movement is an ecstasy of chaos, the 13-member ensemble somehow seemingly co-ordinated while no points of form – the seething saxophones, the forceful trombone, the ascending piano clusters – might ever be precisely identified as specifically formal elements.

 

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Mary Lou Williams is represented by very different music played by a very different orchestra. The Umlaut Big Band’s Mary’s Ideas (Umlaut UMFR-CD3435) is sub-titled 1930 – 1981 Rare and Newly Discovered Works, reflecting the extensive research conducted by alto saxophonist and bandleader Pierre-Antoine Badaroux and trumpeter Benjamin Dousteyssier at the Institute of Jazz Studies in 2019, going through Williams’ vast archive, uncovering and reassembling her music. As Badaroux remarks in his extensive notes, “There are very few complete compositions, ready to be played, but if one considers each manuscript as part of a whole set of documents, if it is put in perspective with biographical and discographical information, it becomes possible to reconstitute, and therefore hear, entire parts of Mary Lou Williams’ forgotten oeuvre.”

The project joins the Umlaut Big Band’s previous archival work on European swing and their Don Redman project. What makes this so different, however, is the sheer span of Williams’ work, ranging from ragtime and blues to her involvement with the founders of bebop to pieces in the early 1960s inspired by, yes, Cecil Taylor, and a modal piece called “Shafi,” co-composed with veteran Mingus sideman Shafi Hadi and arranged in 1977. The program is a thoughtful balance of scholarship, grouping music on various principles, whether by genre or chronology. There are three different arrangements of “Mary’s Idea” sprinkled through the set, with arrangements written for Kirk in 1930 and 1938 and another one retitled, “Just an Idea (Mary’s Idea)” from 1947 and apparently never assigned to a band.

The two CDs include brief movements from Williams’ History of Jazz for Wind Symphony, an unfinished late work composed for the Wind Symphony of Duke University between 1978 and 1981, the final years of Williams’ life. Its first movement, “Suffering,” an emotional prelude to Williams’ jazz history, appears at the program’s beginning. Other segments appear near the end of the second disc. Fascinatingly, Williams’ idea of jazz history may here suggest Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

There is something very special about the Umlaut Big Band that may distinguish it from similar archival projects. On one hand, it’s interested in vernacular accuracy. It’s far removed from the stylistic exaggerations that once haunted nostalgia-driven treatments of swing. The rhythmic style of the group’s Don Redman recordings suggests the bands of the 1930s, and the same is true here, though this ranges further, given both the time frame and the variety of the originally intended performers. While Williams’ work is often distinctive, one gets a sense, too, of how skillful she was at tailoring materials for different bands. There are pieces here arranged for Benny Goodman that capture the band’s characteristics; similarly, pieces written for Ellington, many of which were never actually played by him, sound similarly authentic.

As to the style of improvisation employed, many of the musicians solo in a manner that’s directly continuous with the music, like trumpeters Brice Pichard and Gabriel Levasseur. Some, however, don’t, and there are often inside/outside solo passages and some approaching free improvisation, indications of the make-up of the band. The Umlaut label is the work of a collective of musicians based in Paris and Berlin, with diverse interests.  

Among them is Badaroux himself, who regularly appears in small groups with Axel Dörner, Jean-Luc Guionnet, and Bertrand Denzler. The drummer in the Umlaut Big Band is Antonin Gerbal, who figures in another recent jazz history project, [Ahmed], the quartet with Seymour Wright, Pat Thomas, and Joel Grip that produces LP-length improvisations on the music and principles of Ahmed Abdul Malik, as well as the piano trio Ism, which is Ahmed without Wright and which also records for Umlaut. Gerbal also plays in a duo with Bertrand Denzler.

This is to emphasize the creativity that complements the seriousness of the Umlaut Big Band and the Williams project at every turn. Gerbal is sufficiently interested in the traditional art of jazz drumming to make appropriate distinctions between the different time frames of this music, ranging over a 50-year period from 1930 to 1981. Others are sufficiently liberated to imagine that an improvised solo is more about the musical language of the improviser than the work he’s improvising on. In a way, they might be Williams’ ideal interpreters.

One of the band’s most interesting soloists is tenor saxophonist Pierre Borel (who also plays clarinet and bass clarinet here). On “New Musical Express,” intended for Ellington, he seems to possess something of the gravelly, legato bop of Paul Gonsalves; elsewhere he suggests an avant-garde Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, combining surprising rhythmic placement and notes with sudden radical shifts in timbre and a frequent effect that suggests strangulation. I found a quick introduction to Borel’s own music on Youtube with the trio Schnell, Borel on alto with bassist Antonio Borghini and drummer Christian Lillinger. It initially suggests he is influenced by Ornette Coleman or Marshall Allen, but he soon gets to terrain where the appropriate comparisons would be with Seymour Wright or Jean-Luc Guionnet. The vital preservation of the historical textures of jazz has long been the responsibility of an avant-garde, from Archie Shepp’s tenor timbres to Cecil Taylor’s love of Ellington to Henry Threadgill’s adaptations of ragtime. Here it continues.

 

© 2022 Stuart Broomer

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